Return to the Lord your God

Lamentation 1For the last five Sundays of Lent, the Compline Choir has sung as an anthem one of the many settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah (in most bibles, the book of Lamentations comes right after the book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament). This has become a tradition over the years — the somber nature of the text and its theme of repentance lends itself well to the introspective season, with its culmination in Holy Week and Easter.

We also sing simpler versions of the other parts of Compline during Lent, which gives us more time to rehearse these rather challenging compositions, most of which are from the Renaissance.

The practice of singing from the book of Lamentations goes back to the Middle Ages, where they were the first three lessons (or readings) in the monastic office of Matins on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of Holy Week. Matins was chanted in the early morning hours, and immediately followed by the Office of Lauds, which was timed to be sung at sunrise. In the old form of Matins, there were nine lessons in all, and they were chanted by a solo cantor. The Lamentations have a special reciting formula that is more elaborate than the other lessons.

The picture above is from a book of Gregorian chant, and shows the beginning of the first lesson from Matins on Holy Thursday.  Notice how, after the introduction, each verse is preceded by a letter of the Hebrew alphabet (ALEPH, BETH, GIMEL, etc. in consecutive order). Each lesson ends with the refrain “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God:”


I excerpt here the “Jerusalem” section from each of the Lamentations that we have sung over the last five weeks, showing each composer’s unique approach to the same text. These excerpts are given in approximate chronological order by composer. There is also a link to the particular Compline service, if you want to hear the whole Lamentations setting for any given day:

1. Costanzo Festa (ca. 1485/90-1545), from our podcast of March 30, 2014. Heavy and thick, with antiphonal choirs, which comes as a contrast from the preceding verses of mostly solo duos and trios.

2. Jacques Arcadelt (ca. 1507-1568), from our podcast of April 6, 2014. Smooth, classic Renaissance counterpoint.

3. Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585), from our podcast of March 16, 2014. My favorite Renaissance setting; note the solo high voice in a kind of dialog with the others, and the poignancy of major and minor sonorities.

4. Alphonso Ferrabosco the Younger (ca. 1575-1628), from our podcast of March 23, 2014. Clashes and chromaticism in this early 17th-c. setting.

5. Peter Hallock (b. 1924), from our podcast of March 9, 2014. Composition from the 1980s by the founder of the Compline Choir, Peter Hallock, with solo cello.

Next week is Holy Week, and I will write about another custom from the offices of Matins and Lauds during the three days before Easter – a custom that led to an evening service known as Tenebrae, or “darkness.”

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